My hopes for Assassin’s Creed 4 were virtually non-existent, to be frank.  It wasn’t just a matter of low expectations; it was simply that, after falling in love with Brotherhood and then being so incredibly disappointed by both Revelations and last year’s straight-up broken AC3, I didn’t want to have to care anymore.  I certainly didn’t expect very much …

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weekend recap – hello goodbye

December 3, 2012


1.  I gave up on Assassin’s Creed 3 over the weekend; I went about as far as I could go before accepting that I just.  didn’t.  care.  And it’s a shame, too, I suppose, because even though the overall narrative was ridiculous, I was getting to a point in the story where there was some actual, insightful perspective on what the American Revolution was really about.  And certain relationships between characters – specifically, that of a father and son, newly reacquainted – had the potential to get quite interesting.  But the game itself is broken, undercooked, with a thousand extraneous things to do and none of them particularly interesting or designed.  The Homestead mechanic – a variant on the mechanic in AC2 / Brotherhood where Ezio built up his mansion and ancestral city / his band of assassins, and in which I spent a lot of time working on and developing in those games – is barely taught, its benefits utterly unexplained.  The hunting mechanic felt tedious and without any sort of tangible reward – yes, you can sell what you scavenge, but I never found myself hurting for money mostly because I never bought anything, because there was nothing of interest to buy.  You do precious little assassinating for an Assassin in a game called Assassin’s Creed, too, but you do find yourself getting chased by the British for no particular reason at all, in chase sequences that last anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes, and which GOD JUST MAKE IT STOP.  Ubisoft:  I implore you.  TAKE A YEAR OFF.  We know you won’t, as you like to be all over console launches, but WE DO NOT NEED A NEW ASSASSIN’S CREED GAME NEXT YEAR.

2.  Besides giving up on AC3, I didn’t really do all that much gaming this weekend, as I was busy with some music stuff I’m working on.  But when I did get my game on, I found myself getting pulled back into Batman: Arkham City, which I bought during the Thanksgiving Steam Sale.  The similarities between Batman and Assassin’s Creed are many, as it turns out, but Batman does everything so much better.  Even though I’ve already beaten it, I’m still enjoying it just as much this second time around.

Do you guys do this, too?  Do you ever find yourself replaying old games?  I do this every once in a while, especially if an old game kinda keeps popping up in my memory – for me, it’s almost the same feeling as re-reading a favorite book; I get to live in that world again, and often times it’s just as good (if not better) the second time around, because you get to pay attention to details that you missed the first time, and you can skim over the parts you don’t like.  

I think I mentioned the other day that I’ve already started work on my “BEST GAMES OF THIS CONSOLE GENERATION” post, and as such I’ve had a jones to play a bunch of old favorites again – Uncharted 2 (and maybe even 3), BioshockRed Dead Redemption.  (For whatever it’s worth, Portal 1/2 will be on my list, but I’ve played both of those games too many times for me to feel nostalgic about them right now.)  This even though I still need to finish XCOM, and even though I’m now suddenly looking forward to Far Cry 3, what with all the amazing reviews it’s been getting…

3.  I turn 37 on Saturday, and I’ve been toying with the idea of getting myself a 3DS (or the XL version) as a birthday present.  I don’t really know why, though – it’s not like the game library has suddenly, dramatically improved.  And while I’ve heard amazing things about Pushmo, and while I’d certainly like to check out OoT and the new Professor Layton, that’s not really enough to sink $250 on, especially with a baby on the way in April.   And especially since my iPhone 4’s home button is becoming very unreliable, and I’m eligible to upgrade to the 5 in a few weeks anyway.  Still, it’s something I’m thinking about.

That’s it, and that’s all.

I’m currently re-reading Justin Cronin’s excellent “The Passage“, primarily to get reacquainted with the world and the characters and the story before diving into the sequel.  But I’m also just totally in love with the book itself, and I’m probably enjoying it even more the second time around.  Cronin is a masterful storyteller, to be …

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weekend recap: so many bullets

November 20, 2012


[This recap is a day late, and edited to reflect yesterday evening; my entire Monday was spent at the DMV, which was about as awesome as you might expect.  I’m just going to leave it at that, because I really don’t want to think about it any more.  It’s not like you need to hear about how miserable the DMV is, anyway; we’ve all been there, we’ve all experienced purgatory on earth.]

Here are some stray observations from a dissatisfied weekend:

  • I was a bit reluctant to get back into Assassin’s Creed 3 until that mega-patch landed (I think it lands today [Tuesday], as a matter of fact).  But when I got back from the hellish experience that was the DMV, I decided to give it a go and see what else was in store.  As it turns out, this may have been a bad decision.  I’d written the other day about how underwhelming the Boston Tea Party mission was; well, you also get to experience Paul Revere’s Ride, which very well might win my 2012 award for the Most Poorly Conceived and Poorly Executed Mission Of The Year.  Instead of a lengthy chase sequence on horseback, which is what I was expecting, Paul Revere sat behind me on a horse and yelled out directions in which I should turn, and we had to do this quite slowly so as not to attract attention (even though Paul Revere was still shouting “I THINK IT’S THIS WAY!” every 20 seconds), and we only ended up knocking on 3 or 4 houses (in which the same NPC answered the door).  I’m not really sure why I’m continuing to bother, to be honest.  This franchise started losing its way last year, when it started to confuse ambition for enjoyment.

 

  • I haven’t necessarily forgiven Halo 4 for its teleportation sins, but I’m still slowly forging through the campaign.  I’m impressed with the graphics – this is easily the best looking Halo game in the franchise – and I certainly appreciate 343’s attempts to mix up the action and pacing with vehicle and turret segments.  (Also, flying a pelican is pretty neat.)  Still, I think my biggest problem with the game now is that none of my objectives are particularly interesting; I’m clearing landing zones, I’m shutting down 2 or 3 towers to open up a new thing or whatever.  It’s grunt work, basically.  And a lot of the enemies are bullet sponges (or, at least, they are when I’m shooting), and that can get dull.  

 

  • I forgot to mention that I’m also playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.  Totally forgot I’d put it on the rental queue.  Shooter fatigue notwithstanding, it’s actually pretty fun, even if I don’t really care about these characters.  I think the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a huge difference in feel between Halo 4 and CODBLOPS2.  In Halo 4, enemies take lots of damage before going down; whereas in COD, everything is more or less a one-hit kill, and so you feel like you’re moving through the game a lot faster.  Similarly, in Halo 4 you run out of ammo pretty quick, so you’re constantly picking up and experimenting with new weapons.  In COD, your first gun will pretty much get you through the whole mission, and as such there’s no real need to experiment with found weaponry (unless it’s clearly given to you because you’re going to need it.)

CODBLOPS 2 is pretty fun, I guess, although I’m currently up to my first Strike Force mission, which is a weird not-quite-tower-defense / real time strategy sort of mission, where I’m defending 3 different points on a base, alternating between an eye-in-the-sky, a weird mech-tank-dog, and individual soldiers.  I have no idea what this has to do with the story; nor do I know why the designers thought that radically changing the action would be a good idea, especially since the friendly AI is incredibly stupid and useless, and the only way to really accomplish anything is simply to make yourself one of the soldiers and kill everyone, the way you’d normallyplay.   Still haven’t finished that mission, either; I was getting my ass kicked quite thoroughly and had retreated all the way so that I was defending the last point on the map, whereupon I got killed, and then the game crashed.   Haven’t felt compelled to give it another go since.

As much as I’d like to finish these three big games before the end of the year, I’m not sure I’m going to; all of them are driving me a bit crazy, and I can’t say I’m truly enjoying myself in any of them.  Nor am I sure there’s anything else coming out before the end of the year that I really need to get my hands on – I don’t care about Far Cry 3, and I’ve never been good at previous Hitman games, so Absolution doesn’t really sound all that appealing.  I do want to finish the last 2 episodes in The Walking Dead, and I must confess to wanting to give Lego Lord of the Rings a try, since the wife might enjoy playing that with me in co-op.  The second bit of DLC for Borderlands 2 came out today as well, although it’s getting somewhat weak reviews.  I suppose I could always go back and play some more XCOM

Still, expect a GOTY post sometime in December.

real talk, part two

November 16, 2012


Apologies for yesterday’s postus interruptus; as per usual around here, I tend to get very busy only when I’m working on blog stuff, and since the first half of yesterday’s post felt particularly good coming out of the fingers, you would be correct to  assume that I got absolutely buried in work bullshit before I was able to get to the second half.  Right now, none of my bosses are even in the office, so this is a perfect opportunity to start writing; of course, I didn’t end up playing anything last night except for my two current iOS obsessions, so I’m feeling a bit detached from the Assassin’s Creed 3 rant that I never ended up writing.

Let me start with the iOS stuff first, since I’m in a good mood.  I’m still playing the hell out of Chip Chain, and now I’ve gotten my wife into it as well.  Here’s how addicting and engrossing it is – I missed my subway stop yesterday morning because I forgot to look up from my iPhone.  I told my wife as much, and to be careful on the way home.  She then missed her subway stop coming home from work, even though I’d warned her, because she forgot to look up from her iPhone.  We are both fully obsessed with it; I’ve finally unlocked everything there is to unlock, and my scores have been getting better, but I’m still not quite the zen master that I feel I could be with just a few dozen more hours of play.

Ironically, the one thing that’s helped me curb my addiction to Chip Chain (besides my day job keeping me insanely busy) is another new iOS game called Dream of Pixels (itunes, $0.99).  The easiest way to describe DoP is that it’s Tetris in reverse; a solid wall of blocks slowly descends from the top of the screen, and you have to carve a given tetromino shape out of the wall before anything touches the bottom of the screen.  I’ve never been particularly good at Tetris, and I’m sure my scores in DoP are on the low side of things, but goddamn, it’s really well made – it’s got a really beautiful and soothing art style and sound design (For some reason, the art style reminds me a little bit of Braid, even though the only thing you see are block-shaped clouds), and even though things can get hairy, it never feels as chaotic as regular Tetris.  It even gives you a nice compliment after you lose, which is quite lovely.  I think the only knock I’d give it is that it doesn’t appear to let you listen to your own music/podcast/etc., but that’s certainly not enough to dissuade me from giving it a full-throated recommendation.  UPDATE:  Turns out my iPhone was just being weird; DoP certainly does let you listen to your own audio.  Fantastic!  No knocks to give!

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OK, so.  You may recall in yesterday’s post that I very much wanted to discuss what I’d just seen in Assassin’s Creed 3, but that I needed to get my Halo 4 rant out of the way first.  There are SLIGHT STORY SPOILERS ahead, but let’s also be pretty clear here – AC3 takes place during the years leading up to the American Revolution, and considering the events that the previous games let you be privy to, you have to assume that your character will be an active participant in certain notable events in American history.  Let me also state that even though I’ve been playing for a dozen hours or so, a lot of those hours have just been dicking around in exploration mode; I’ve not really advanced the story all that much, so what follows is still relatively early in the game.

The whole reason why I even bothered to put Halo 4 into my 360’s tray was because I’d just finished the Boston Tea Party mission, and I literally couldn’t believe what I’d just seen.

I’m not sure what the right word is to describe just that mission’s terribleness, especially considering just how all-encompassing that terribleness actually was.  It was downright farcical.  For a franchise that generally takes itself incredibly seriously (notwithstanding Ezio’s Uncle Mario, as well as everything about Leonardo da Vinci), the Boston Tea Party was a goddamned travesty.

My familiarity with the American Revolution is, admittedly, a bit rusty.  That’s partly why I was so interested in playing AC3 in the first place, though; I was really interested in seeing what these events might have looked like.

Wikipedia describes the Boston Tea Party as “a key event in the in the growth of the American Revolution.”  What the game presented, though, looked more like a frat party stunt gone awry, with just 3 dudes heaving boxes of tea off of a ship (or, at least, trying to heave boxes of tea off a ship – when I tried to do it, I was just as likely to throw a box into another box, or a ship’s mast, or even backwards), and also in a world where “awry” means the violent, acrobatic murdering of 20-30 British soldiers in front of a cheering (though utterly silent) throng of colonists.   And when it was over – when 100 boxes of tea (no more, no less) had been thrown into the murky depths of Boston Harbor, the cutscene that followed basically just showed 3 dudes walking, and the camera was actually drifting off of their faces – it looked like a bad take, frankly.

The whole thing could not have been more anti-climactic, which is the literal opposite of the intended effect, I would think.  I couldn’t believe that such an epic moment of American history could have been treated so sloppily.  And considering that this is but the first such moment I’ve come across, I shudder to think what else this game is going to have me do.  (I’ve already heard terrible things about Paul Revere’s Ride, which certainly doesn’t bode well.)

UPDATE:  not moments after I published this post, Kotaku revealed that Ubisoft is putting out an absolutely massive patch next week that should fix a lot of what’s broken.  That list can be found here, but I must also submit that there’s plenty about the game when it’s working properly that’s still a bit messed up.

more AC3 talk, and some other people’s brilliance

November 13, 2012


I’m having one of those afternoons where I’m just kinda restless.  The day job has been a source of enormous stress and anxiety over the last few weeks, and yet I’m not feeling like I’m as busy as I should be, which makes me feel even worse.  Today, for example, I’ve basically been waiting for the massive workload that I know is coming, but I don’t know when, and I don’t know what it’s going to be.

I’d much rather be writing, but as you might imagine, I’m not really in a position right now where I can shut out the rest of the world and really get into it.  I mean, I played Assassin’s Creed 3 for a few more hours last night, and I’d like to continue talking about it, even though most of the 2000+ words I wrote yesterday cover pretty much everything.  Could I expect you to keep reading?

In any event, I realize now that I forgot to mention the meta-challenges, which are perhaps the most irritating thing about the game (and yet which, ironically, are in the game specifically to induce replayability).  These challenges basically ask you to complete each mission while also fulfilling certain requirements, such as only killing enemies with a certain weapon, or to kill enemies without using a certain weapon, or other such random nonsense.  I tried paying attention to them at first, but soon found that they hampering my natural gameplay rhythm; why couldn’t I just complete the mission the way I wanted to, responding to the way the scene naturally unfolded?  Of course, after you complete each mission, the game “grades” your performance, and each missed challenge shows up in bright red text.  This is bullshit.  I mean, I get this “grading” thing, and it works in certain contexts.  But not here.  After all, I don’t give the game a grade after each mission for how many times the broken AI prevented me from doing what I needed to do, right?  Or how often the controls don’t actually do what I ask them to, such as when I’m attempting to climb a tree but instead accidentally jump 50 feet to my death?  (That sentence would be ironic if I were a professional game critic.)

Anyway.  I did a few more missions, and then I spent around an hour in the Boston Underground, unlocking the rest of the Fast Travel locations (or, rather, as many as I could find – I think I’ve gotten 6 of the 10 available).   And it was in these quiet moments of exploration and occasional parkour that I remembered why I still love this franchise.   My favorite bits of the previous games were those side areas that eschewed combat entirely and instead focused purely on climbing, exploring, and puzzle solving – in short, the parts that reminded me of Prince of Persia.  The Boston Underground is pretty underwhelming in that regard, as it’s less about gigantic ancient buildings and more about mostly narrow tunnels and a few lever puzzles that can be solved in around 15 seconds, but it’s at least sort of scratches the relevant itch.

So, there.  There’s some words for you.

I really started this specific post, though, to highlight some other excellent words written by writers far better than I.

1.  Last week I wanted to write a big response to the Eurogamer mini-scandal, and about the ethics of game journalism, and what exactly a “mock review” is and why it’s so terrible.  And then the brilliant Leigh Alexander went ahead and wrote this, and that more or less took the wind out of my sails.

2.  My good friend Carolyn Petit over at Gamespot wrote this lovely story about a woman in Pittsburgh trying to build an arcade, and the struggles she’s run into.

3.  Brendan Kough, over at one of my new favorite sites, Unwinnable, has a great appreciation for the irreverent storytelling of Borderlands 2.

weekend recap – AC3, Halo 4, and an iOS GOTY contender

November 12, 2012


1.  I’ve found a possible contender for iOS game of the year, and it is called CHIP CHAIN (itunes, free).  It’s a fiendishly addictive combination of Triple Town and Drop 7; if either of those games mean anything to you, you will get sucked into Chip Chain immediately.   For the rest of you, here’s the developer’s description:

Place and match 3 or more identical poker chips to earn a more valuable chip, then chain together matches for huge bonuses! Play power-up cards to make combos, extend chains, and maximize your score. The dealer tosses chips to get in your way, but if you play smart and think ahead, you can turn the tables and use them to your advantage. Earn gems to spend on better chips, more powerful cards, bigger hands, gem multipliers, and more!

It’s free, and while there are in-app purchases, they’re certainly not necessary – you earn in-game currency at a pretty steady pace anyway.  The only negative criticism I can offer is that it tends to suck battery life rather quickly; my morning-commute iPhone gaming usually drains from fully charged to around 80%; this morning’s commute drained me all the way down to the low 70s.  Hopefully that will be addressed in a patch.  That aside, I give this my highest recommendation.

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2.  I have given up on Need For Speed Most Wanted.  I tried playing a bit more on Friday night, and found myself cursing and ranting and saying things that I really ought to not say out loud, even if I’m in an empty room, yelling at the television.   Understand that it breaks my heart to do this.  Understand that underneath all the frustration and the bullshit and the cheap shots and the magnetized traffic and everything else that makes me seethe with white-hot fury, this is still a Criterion driving game, and as such there are still moments of breath-taking exhilaration to be found.   But there’s SO MUCH BULLSHIT you must endure before you get to those fleeting moments of glory, and I don’t have the time any more to put up with a game that makes me angry.

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3.  I don’t know if I’m giving up on Halo 4.  I did the first 2 missions and then put it down, and I haven’t really thought about it much since.   It looks gorgeous, and it still feels like Halo, which is what it’s supposed to do, I guess.  But the truth of the matter is that it only took about 5 minutes before my ongoing issues with shooter fatigue kicked in.   I’m really, really tired of shooting things, especially the Covenant.  I’d still like to try the co-op stuff, I suppose, but even that isn’t all that appealing.  I will say this, though – I tried the SmartGlass app on my iPad, and Halo 4 takes advantage of it in some pretty neat ways.   I suppose if I were really into multiplayer, I’d really get into all its stat-tracking and everything.   It’s certainly not essential, but it’s a nice feature to have if you’re into that sort of thing.

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4.   I did finally receive my Gamefly copy of Assassin’s Creed 3, which, as it turns out,  is very much the kind of game I’d rather be playing than shooters and frustrating driving games.  It’s a shame, then, that so much of it is broken.

My relationship with the Assassin’s Creed franchise is, for lack of a better word, weird.  I’m a devoted fan almost in spite of myself, because there’s just too damned much of it.

I really liked AC1, even if it was ultimately repetitive and shallow.  I genuinely loved AC2, which fleshed out the main story with a number of fun (and relevant) side missions.  And I still adore AC2: Brotherhood, which may very well end up in my top 5 games of this console generation.  The thing is, I never needed these games to come out every year.  Frankly, I suppose one of the reasons why I like Brotherhood so much is that I was legitimately afraid that it was going to suck – I worried that they were adding too much, too quickly, without giving the game enough time to properly cook (and without giving its audience enough time to achieve the proper level of excitement).

This is probably why I gave up on AC2: Revelations so quickly; my fear of diminishing returns finally came true.  AssRev was overly complicated, throwing far too many new ideas at the player – many of which were half-baked to begin with, and none of which felt particularly necessary.  I’d sunk over 100 hours into the first 3 games without ever once feeling like I needed to use smoke grenades, let alone a complex grenade crafting system.  I’d barely learned how to properly use the grappling hook in AssRev before I was being thrust into a ridiculous, nonsensical tower defense minigame.  And to top it all off, the controls were utterly fucked up; it felt like I needed to hold 4 buttons down just to run up a wall – something I’d already done at least a thousand times in the earlier games – and yet more often than not, I’d end up jumping into a ravine instead of climbing onto a platform.

And so, prior to AC3’s release, I must admit that I was a little worried.  I wasn’t sure I was ready for yet another Assassin’s Creed game, especially coming on the heels of the incredible disappointment of AssRev.  And I wasn’t sure how Ubisoft was going to fix all the things that needed fixing, while adding all the things they would inevitably add, in such a short span of time.

Indeed, I’m now 10 or so hours into AC3, and I’m still a little worried about it.  I am happy to say that I’m enjoying it a hell of a lot more than AssRev, but I’m also a little bummed out about how rough around the edges it seems to be.

The game is flat-out broken in a number of alarming ways.  And I don’t just mean that the player can get stuck in level geometry on a consistent basis, although that’s happened far too many times for an AAA title.  There’s one example I can point early on in the game where literally nothing makes sense.  

**SLIGHT STORY SPOILERS AHEAD**  

There’s a mission where Samuel Adams is ostensibly going to to show young Connor how to use the Fast Travel System.  The two characters walk towards the indicated waypoint, but the road is barred by soldiers.  Connor says, “How about I just take the rooftops and meet you there?”  Sam then says, “No, not that way.  You need to learn how to do this.  Follow me.”  Except he doesn’t move; he expects me to take him.    I don’t know where I’m supposed to go!

Here’s the catch:  I actually do, since I’d already explored this area during a previous visit and unlocked a few Fast Travel locations (before I actually knew what they were).  The problem is, when I try to take Sam to one of the other Fast Travel locations I’ve already discovered, the game tells me I’m about to fail the mission for leaving the mission area.

?!

I had to look at a walkthrough, which revealed that I actually did have to go to the place that was guarded by soldiers, and that the only way in was to climb over the rooftops and sneak in behind, which, as you’ll recall above, was specifically what Sam asked me not to do.

**END SLIGHT STORY SPOILERS**

At least I was able to complete this mission; the mission I had to do 2 missions before this one caused me to, for no reason at all, suddenly become attacked by dozens of soldiers.  Restart checkpoint – same thing happens.  There was no way to fix this other than to kill everyone.  And then Connor and Sam had a leisurely conversation, as if nothing had just happened.

Another thing that tends to get under the skin is the wildly uneven pacing.  I don’t mean in terms of the story – while a lot of critics have opined that the game starts far too slowly, I actually appreciate that the game has taken its time to set up where it’s going.  Instead, I’m talking more specifically about the errors of pacing where it’s clear that there wasn’t enough time to properly polish and edit each scene.  There are times when the game makes you walk 10 feet before a new cutscene starts; there are other times right next to them where you have to walk 500 yards to get to the next cutscene; there are times when you’ll start a mission and instantly jump to where you need to be; there are other times where you’ll start a mission and, as before, have to walk for 10 minutes before the mission starts.  I can’t say I know anything about game development, but I’d guess that if the game had even just a few more months of polish, these sorts of inconsistencies would be smoothed over and the overall experience would be much improved.  Instead, Ubisoft rushed it out the door in order to meet its quarterly earnings projections, and we ended up with something that isn’t nearly as good as it should be.

I can’t speak for all AC fans, but I can’t imagine anybody wants one of these games every year; I think they’d prefer to have these games to come out when they’re good and ready.  Because when these games work the way they’re supposed to, they are incredibly fun and engaging and immersive.  There’s really nothing like them, and that’s why they’re so special.

Nor would I contend that the thing that keeps people attracted to this franchise is all the crazy, random shit that has nothing to do with the business of assassinating.  Brotherhood remains the best game in the franchise for me because all the random stuff it added made sense, and added to the overall experience of being the head of an Assassin Guild, and most importantly – it was fun.

AC3, on the other hand, has a bizarre, overly complicated hunting system – which is fine, I suppose, except it doesn’t work all that well and it doesn’t do anything to enhance the experience, even though it’s incessantly shoving itself into your way.  (By way of contrast, look at Red Dead Redemption‘s hunting system – it was simple, easy to understand, yielded tangible rewards, and didn’t constantly remind you of its existence; it was there if you wanted to engage with it, and remained quietly in the background if you wanted to do something else.)

Similarly, I completed my first naval battle last night.  Let’s leave aside the highly questionable narrative decision wherein a seasoned British naval officer allows a Native American teenager to captain a fucking ship and engage in warfare on the open seas, and ask ourselves if this is something that ever needed to exist in this franchise.  Because even though the minigame itself was surprisingly well executed and even impressive, cinematically, it’s still totally unnecessary.

I’m not ready to give up on it, though; despite its brokenness and its near-desperate need to impress you with SOMETHING NEW at every turn, it’s a lot more fundamentally sound than AssRev.  I like these new characters; I like the shift in location and era; I like that the overall narrative seems to have gained some of the forward momentum it seemed to be lacking.  And, frankly, I miss this franchise.  Like I said above – when it’s good, there’s nothing quite like it.  And being that we’re in the middle of shooter season, this is a very refreshing change of pace.

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